Thursday, July 16, 2009

Let's Talk About Sex (Scenes)

by Meghan Conrad

Let's face it, guys: writing sex scenes is hard. I'd go so far as to say that for many people, sex scenes are the most difficult type of scene to write. Part of that is a sex scene is first and foremost an action scene, so you have to be aware of the timing and choreography the same way you would if you're writing a climactic scene in a thriller. To complicate things further, while the thriller writers have nearly infinite options for how their scene plays out, you guys have one, since obviously your scene ends in orgasm. And, just for good measure, the thiller writers have a wide assortment of guns, explosives and other incendiaries while you guys get about half a dozen words for genitalia. Ouch. Is it any wonder that so many people hate writing sex scenes?

So what can you do to make your sex scenes stand out? It's twofold.

Treat your sex scene like an action scene. Block out the choreography, making sure that everything you mention is possible. Keep an eye on where hands and arms are, making sure that you don't end up giving your hero three (or more!) hands. Make sure that the scene flows in a logical manner--does her bra somehow come off before her shirt? Do his pants come off twice?

Sometimes, even when the sex is fairly clear, I find that I need to chart things out. I'll make a flowchart, detailing exactly what happens when. Once it's written, I go back and list off all movements so I can look at them without being distracted by the story. This can be really useful, especially if you use sticky notes. If you decide that the scene needs revision, you can play musical notes until you have something that works.

Once you know what's happening when in your sex scene, you can start wondering how you're going to describe it. One of the biggest problems for sex scenes is that it's so easy for them to become repetitive or mechanical--the same words or actions are used over and over, in book after book.

Some authors try to avoid this by using euphemisms whenever possible. "His throbbing trouser snake nudged against her labia, then slipped into her wet grotto." Ew. Especially in erotic romace, euphemisms are a bad idea. We might be able to skim past a few, but multiple euphemisms will trip up the reader--not only do we get sucked out of the story to wonder why you made that particular comparison (how is his penis like a ferret, again?) but repeated use of euphemisms makes your hero and heroine seem immature. If you can't say penis, should you really be having sex?

You also want to avoid Tab-A Slot-B sex scenes, scenes where the hero and heroine are clearly supposed to have sex, so they do. This is maybe the most common problem I see in submissions. The story's fine, the story's okay...and then suddenly the hero and heroine have sex, realize they're in love, and go off to live happily ever. All well and good, and there's certainly never wrong with sex + love + HEA, but you have to support that in your writing. There's more to writing sex scenes than just the physical aspect of it, and if you miss the underlying connection, you might as well not have the sex scene in at all.

It's not enough to tell your reader that the hero put his long, hard cock into the heroine's eager cunt. They need to know what it felt like, physically and emotionally. The emotional aspects are almost more important than the physical aspects, to be honest. These sex scenes are supposed to actively contribute to the development of the relationship, and you need to show us that. Tell us how the characters feel, what they're thinking. Give us more to think about than how big his cock is--tell us how satisfying it is, how he knows how to use it, how it makes her heart skip a beat.

When writing a sex scene, do:
  • Pay attention to the emotional as well as the physical aspects.
  • Utilize all of the character's senses. How does it smell? What does the other person taste like?
  • Use charts and careful rereading to make sure that no one develops a third arm mid-coitus.
  • Remember that with strongly emotional writing, a plan-vanillia, missionary-position sex scene can be every bit as sexy and arousing as a menage a trois with double penetration and light BDSM.
  • Show us, don't tell us--saying "his long, hard cock was supremely satisfying" isn't anywhere near as evocative as telling us about how she was desperate for his cock, how she loved the sensation.
When writing a sex scene, don't:
  • Act like you're afraid to use graphic words. This isn't second grade, and saying penis isn't going to get you benched for recess.
  • Get so caught up in making the sex as extreme as possible that you lose sight of the story.
  • Forget why they're having sex in the first place--presumably it's more than just being in the same place at the same time. It's because they find the other person attractive, or because they're falling in love, or because they were both lonely. Don't cheapen the relationship in the name of sex.


Anonymous said...

I like to think of a sex scene as a conflict scene. There should be some tension in there even if you know how it ends. The tension needs to build up and it's not enough to say how their breathing got faster. If nothing emotional happens you can as well write: And then they had sex. The next morning...

Also, to me sex scenes aren't as much about minute detail as telling detail. I don't need a how-to book, I want my brain tickled.

Word verification: forpseat. I wonder if it's a sex toy.

Angelia Sparrow said...

Euphemisms, please don't get me started. The minute any body part is purple or throbbing, and someone isn't an alien or injured...I'm out of the scene.

Sex scenes should be included where necessary to advance both plot and character. Failure to do either is a sign of superfluous sex.

And vary your characters' techniques. This is hard for me as there are about about nine basic sex acts I write. Your SF hero may like oral sex while your Crusader would never dream of putting the most advanced part of his body next to the most animal, and much prefers frottage.

Anonymous said...

Well, from personal experience I can say that a rock hard erection without release for an extended amount of time does feel like it's throbbing.

Anonymous said...

I am book marking this post right now.

I wrote my first sex scene recently, and finding reliable information (or advice) online was hard. I didn't want to make any common mistakes, and I didn't want to leave anything important out.

If I'd had this post back then, I would have felt more prepared.

Anonymous said...

From what I've learned, there's actual medical proof a penis can throb or "pulse"...but it's so subtle as to often not be detected by the human eye (though the throbbing guy in question can feel it, of course), and I really, really hate reading those words anyway.

Speaking solely for myself, both bring to mind exaggerated, cartoon-style expanding and contracting. You know, like when Bugs Bunny smashes his thumb with a hammer and it throbs 12 times its normal size?

Cartoon cocks. Lord deliver me.

Er...does Bugs even have thumbs?


(But I hate reading about "raging" cocks even more. Growl!)

Anonymous said...

check out Kate Walker's 12 point guide to writing romance, pub in USA by Studymates from Chicago Uni Press. It is worth your time.

anna said...

I find it very difficult to write sex scenes, as well! For the most part I just avoid them and do a fade to black routine, because I think that's preferably to stumbling into all of the pitfalls of a bad sex scene.

One little disagreement with the post: "since obviously your scene ends in orgasm" - doesn't have to be the case, always. it could be bad sex!

Natalie Allan said...

I love writing sex scenes. Although some of my past scenes have been very dull and not very pleasing, the more I write the more comfortable I am with using words and description.

Practice makes perfect, and now my scenes are convincing and flow well.

Kev said...

When I wrote my first sex scene I was conscious of falling into the trap of being explicit. Lets face it most authors are looking for the subtle approach. I certainly didn't want to come across as some clumsy Neanderthal talking about slippery bits and situations. Think back to your first experience or your previous ones and select the best from those and use these as a guide. Be sensual, be sensitive and above all be kind, because that's what we're all looking for. You don't have to be explicit for it to be good or understood. you don't need to be bashed between the eyes with genitalia. EG: She was burning with the heat of passion and lust, as he was kissing her all over. Then he moved to where the fire burned hottest. We all know where he's going and it certainly isn't offensive. I personally love writing sex scenes.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

This is an excellent post, and very helpful, thank you! I had a friend who helped me out with writing some sex scenes, and first and foremost, she had me write a sex scene just for ME - between two characters I know very well - myself, and my husband. Talk about eye-opening! That got me into the emotional aspect completely, and comfortable.

You cannot write a good sex scene if you aren't comfortable that the characters are having sex. That was my main problem. Thanks for a great post!